Remembering Abstract Color Field Painter Kenneth Noland

'Inside,' 1958. Image Courtesy of the Hirshhorn MuseumKenneth Noland, the abstract artist whose sensitive approach to color helped define and establish the Washington Color Field school of painting, died Tuesday at the age of 85 at his home in Maine.

Born in Asheville, N.C., Noland began to paint at age 14 after a revelatory experience seeing Monet’s paintings at the National Gallery. He served in the Army during World War II before moving back to North Carolina to attend Black Mountain College — a training ground for many of the most important artists of the mid-twentieth century — where he was a student of Swiss painter Paul Klee and color theorist Josef Albers.

After time spent in Paris studying the work of Matisse, he settled in Washington where he befriended Morris Louis. Influenced by the dripping technique of Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, the two men played with color by applying different layers of paint mixed with a lot of thinner to unprimed canvas. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, he moved to harder geometrical shapes and began to paint the shapes that would become trademarks of his work: chevrons, concentric circles he called targets, and egg-like ovals.

I talked to Valerie Fletcher, Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum, which houses one of the best collections of Noland’s work in the world, about the painter’s life and career. (Full transcript after the jump.)

Watch a slide show of Noland paintings from the Hirshhorn’s collection, including “Beginnings” and “Bend Sinister,” which were referenced in Jeff’s conversation with Valerie Fletcher:

JEFFREY BROWN: Valerie Fletcher of the Hirshhorn, nice to talk to you.

VALERIE FLETCHER: Nice to talk to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So for those who don’t know about Kenneth Noland, describe his work, what was he best known for?

VALERIE FLETCHER: Ken Noland is known primarily for the paintings that he made between about the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s. It’s generally known as Color Field painting, and that’s pretty much associated with American General and with the Washington-New York nexus, where the canvases are large and are filled with areas of color without actually filling the entire canvas.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do we know about his roots and how he came to art?

VALERIE FLETCHER: Well he was born in Asheville, N.C., and according to him, he first discovered modern art and color in particular when his father took him to visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, when the young Kenneth was only 14. He didn’t actually decide to study art until after he finished his military service in World War II, and he used the G.I. Bill to study art. And what’s perhaps most interesting is he didn’t choose to go to one of the more established art schools. He instead studied at Black Mountain College, which was a very bohemian, experimental, vanguard school in North Carolina.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there he studied with among other people Josef Albers?


JEFFREY BROWN: I know you’re working on an exhibition. Tell us about the art, tell us about the teaching there, tell us about how it might have influenced Noland.

VALERIE FLETCHER: Well, Josef Albers as many people know actually started at the Bauhaus School in German in 1920. He was one of the first people to enter there. He went from being a student to being a teacher there within a year. He taught the glass workshop in the preliminary course, which emphasized how to use the basics of art, such as materials, colors, textures and methods. So when he and his wife Anni Albers left Germany somewhat hurriedly in 1933, when the Bauhaus closed, they came to New York and he was immediately hired to become the lead, guiding spirit if you will, for the art program at this new Black Mountain College, which was literally just starting in 1933-34. And so what Albers brought with him is he brought him his, what he had learned and helped to introduce at the Bauhaus, which included color but also the idea that each aspect of art can have its own power, its own communication, its own ability to affect others. Color, while it can be scientifically measured as being light and dark and certain particular hues, it’s also subjectively perceived by individual viewers. And so he taught his students, including Ken Noland, that looking at art you don’t see a combination of colors that are autonomous, but rather the colors in juxtaposition cause different effects in different viewers. And when you look at Ken Noland’s paintings, especially the ones he’s known for these circular compositions called targets or these V-shaped compositions known as chevrons, they always combine at least three colors, and they contrast. In some cases a yellow might appear to be kind of dark and maybe mustardy, and yet the same yellow might look quite different when juxtaposed with a bright red or a bright blue. Those are the things that Josef Albers brought from the Bauhaus to this country, and Ken Noland was one of those who benefited from that teaching.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so that’s useful historical context for understanding Noland. Another thing I want you to help us with is the context of coming — of Noland and Morris Louis and others coming out of Abstract Expressionism. They followed, I think you said this earlier, people like Pollock, but in what sense? I mean, were they a —is Noland to be seen as a kind of response to or reaction against Pollock and others? How do you think about that?

VALERIE FLETCHER: Well, if one were to put it most simplistically, yes, he can be seen along with Morris Louis and some others as being a reaction against the emotionalism and the drama and the textural, gestural effects of paint that you see in works by Willem De Kooning, of course, Jackson Pollock and others. But at the same time, Ken Noland didn’t entirely reject them. He started as one — his earliest paintings are really quite wonderfully gestural. But what he did is by moving towards a purely abstract emphasis on broader fields of color, he made it calmer, he made it cooler, he made it more distant, and yet in many of his target paintings you still see a strong sense of gesture. There’s a little bit of tension between that kind of sense of absolute remove and cool and impersonality with a touch of the emotional gesturalism sneaking in here and there.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know you have a lot of his work there at the Hirshhorn. I have images of four of them in front me, one called “Beginning,” one called “Almondite,” one called “Bend Sinister” and another called “Early Light.” Do you have, I want you to just talk a little about what you have or maybe you have a particular favorite or two?

VALERIE FLETCHER: Well, I’m happy to tell you that the Hirshhorn Museum has one of the best collections of Ken Noland’s paintings anywhere in this country or in the world. We have 17 paintings from the early ’50s to the late 1970s, and most of them are from the 1960s, which is generally conceived to be his greatest period. The one you mentioned, “The Beginning,” that’s one of his targets that indeed has these concentric circles of red and blue and white. And at the very edges of the circle you can see there’s this black, but it’s not the smooth, even texture of all other circles. It’s much more a gestural sort of hovering, a shadow hovering around the edge of this flat series of concentric circles. “Bend Sinister” is one of his largest paintings of the ’60s. It’s one of those chevrons, it’s V-shaped colors coming down. And there’s a dynamic effect of some larger color form coming down from the unseen above, beyond the canvas down to almost but not quite touch the bottom of the canvas, as if there’s a pivotal point in that little, tiny, almost not-quite-making-it-to-the-bottom of the canvas. And what’s difficult to tell from looking at the pictures, like you see them online, is that his technique was to pour very thin washes of color right out of a paint can onto canvases that have not been primed. So it was very much like dying cloth. Canvas after all is a fabric, and so when one sees them in person you see the sort of subtle nuances of how the color, which was very, very watery, was absorbed by the canvas and so that the actual color is not as flat as it appears in pictures. It has a kind of luminous vibrancy that is really the hallmark of Color Field painting.

JEFFREY BROWN: And lastly before I let you go, back to the biography. I didn’t actually realize that he, because he was so well known for the Washington years here, he had moved to Maine. Do you know about his last years, and I guess he kept working? What do we know about that?

VALERIE FLETCHER: Well, actually it’s the period between the Washington-New York years and his final years in Maine. He actually went to Vermont initially to work in the circle of formalist artists associated with Bennington College in Vermont. It was there that he worked — I don’t know if you know about Bennington College, it was a real center for pure abstract art, primarily painting but also sculpture, and artists came from all over the world to spend a semester or summer or a whole year there. And Ken Noland was closely associated with Bennington College and that’s where he often painted frequently in the company of Jules Olitski, who’s another Color Field painter, and Anthony Caro, who is the British abstract sculptor.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Valerie Fletcher of the Hirshhorn on the life and work of Kenneth Noland. Thank you so much.

VALERIE FLETCHER: My pleasure. Thank you.

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